Thursday, December 27, 2012

Toy Story

I think it's interesting that as I look back at Christmases past, I can recall one or two absolutely unforgettable gifts I received. I know the Christmas before I turned 10, I asked for a $50 coffee table book called The Art of Walt Disney. A $50 gift was unheard of in our family in those days, but somehow, my thrifty mother managed to scrape enough leeway in her budget to authorize the purchase.

I still have that book. And it still has the date and my mother's inscription on the inside overleaf.

A treasure for sure.

But the really warm memories of Christmas revolve around the gifts that were given, not received.

Take the year I presented my Dad with toy soldiers.

I've blogged in the past about our gigantic and intricate Christmas decoration traditions involving a now-antique set of Lionel trains and the village that surrounds them (In Training for Christmas). 

Part of that village includes a small band of Scotch guardsmen, dressed to the nines in tartan kilts, playing bagpipes and drums and led by a jaunty drum major in a tall hat. The story behind these musicians -- and there seems to be a story behind everything associated with the trains and the platform -- is that my vacationing grandparents saw them in a shop in Bermuda and purchased them, liking their uniqueness and festive apparel. They don't exactly scream Christmas, but the red and green kilts go a long way toward making them fit into the overall scheme of the tiny town.

They remain to this day important denizens. The plastic, over the decades, has dried out alarmingly; one year, in setting them up, the big bass drum crumbled to pieces between my fingers. And this year, a bagpiper's feet became accidentally amputated in an unfortunate snap of limbs, but thus far, thank God, none of the injuries couldn't be cured with the help of a little craft glue and some patience.

In January of 1984, I took advantage of my college Study Abroad program to spend a semester in London. It was an unforgettable experience that I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to take advantage of.

While there, I visited Hamleys Toy Shop, the largest toy store in the world ( It was a mass of merriment, a plethora of playthings, a toybox of titanic proportions, and I wandered its five stories with a silly grin slapped on my mug.

While there, I happened on something that immediately brought Dad to mind: A set of metal soldiers, bedecked in red coats and wearing silver hats at attention. A perfect accompaniment, I thought, to the Scots band on the platform.

I bought them quickly and chuckled to myself about how well they would be received the following Christmas when they appeared, wrapped, in Dad's pile of gifts.

That April, my parents traveled to London to visit, and for a week, they toured the hotspots -- taking advantage of both the organized tours and my own collection of lesser-known but equally as interesting sites.

One morning at breakfast, Dad was chatting about a treasure he had seen in the gift shop of their hotel.

"It's a set of metal soldiers," he grinned. "I was thinking of them to go on the trains..."


I gave my mother a panicked look that she didn't quite understand and immediate started damage control. "Did you buy them?" I asked.

"Not yet," he said. "I'm still thinking about it."


Later, I brought my mother in on the secret. With her influence ("I don't think they'll match the Scots bandsmen, George. And besides, can you see yourself going through customs when we return to the U.S. and having to declare a set of toys?!?!"), he opted not to include them among his souveniers.

That following Christmas, they lie amid his packages. He tore at the paper... and beamed.

I told him the story behind their purchase and of my mother's collaboration in preventing him from buying what would have been a redundant set.

Every year following, they stood aside the band, complimenting the pipers and drummers with parade dress.

Dad is gone now; Mom is, too.

But those steady soldiers attend their duty every Christmas season.

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